Opinion: Why we’re having less sex

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Americans are a stunningly lonely bunch. Our decline in friendships and social time began before the pandemic, but was badly exacerbated by it. We live more of our lives online and behind a screen, with many people now working from home, schoolchildren learning online and scores of us engaging with our peers on social media more than we do in real life.

Jill Filipovic. - Courtesy Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic. - Courtesy Jill Filipovic

At the same time, our in-person social connections have frayed. Fewer adults are getting married or living with a partner and fewer have children, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if those deep ties were being replicated by other relationships, but they’re not; Americans have fewer friends than we did a decade and a half ago, while our families shrink, too.

Attendance at places of worship and old-school social clubs is also way down — again, not a problem if there were other institutions taking the place of these old spaces of gathering and sometimes of philosophical and moral inquiry, but there aren’t. Yes, a few people have found groups like running clubs, soccer leagues and spiritual retreats, but none of these have been the social forces that old institutions were in terms of allowing for socialization across the lines of age and class (if not so much of belief or race).

There are good reasons why these institutions — church, marriage, the nuclear family — are on the decline. They often imposed suffocating and even bigoted rules, for women  especially. Some have historically excluded entire classes of people — LGBTQ+  people most obviously, but many religious groups were also unwelcoming to African Americans or other minority groups.

Women still cannot hold top positions in many religious institutions, and so many have understandably rejected these misogynistic formal patriarchies. But something has been lost, too, in our collective move away from the communal. And while we are individually freer than ever – an obvious and unalloyed good – we are also profoundly lonely.

But just because religious attendance has declined doesn’t mean that religious ideas have died. And one particularly old-school one is coming up again in our increasingly atomized, antisocial culture: celibacy.

Sex itself is less common among the usually-raring-to-go young than it’s been in decades. Researchers have not agreed on why this is happening, but theories aboundincluding the fact that young people have less unstructured time and spend less of the time they do have simply hanging out with friends, which probably makes for few opportunities for sex.

My personal theory is that social decline plays a primary role and is helped along by more feminist, empowered young women looking at a pool of young men whose sexual mindsets have been shaped by years of online porn and video games. When things like sexual choking become accepted — a dangerous act that can cause permanent brain damage — it’s not difficult to grasp why young women who feel empowered to say no decide to do exactly that.

This is not exactly feminist progress. If young women do indeed feel freer to opt out of sex they don’t want, that’s great. But it’s not clear that’s actually what’s driving the current sexual decline. And most women desire sex, too, and deserve to have sex that feels good. That too many heterosexual men seemingly can’t or won’t deliver it is a problem.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be having sex all the time. American society is at once hypersexual and puritanical: We are a nation where sexually explicit advertising is pervasive and used to sell everything from cat food to drain cleaner, and also where more than a dozen states have banned abortion. With the stunning successes of the anti-abortion movement, and with threats to contraception access as well, heterosexual sex can feel more perilous than ever.

Many women (and some men) are also owning their choice to opt out of sex entirely or for a period, some perhaps fueled by their negative reactions to a recent campaign by the dating app Bumble that seemed to malign sexual abstinence (amid the backlash, Bumble apologized for the ads and took them down). Even uber-sexy actress Julia Fox announced her celibacy, tying it to our cultural and political moment. “I think, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and our rights being stripped away from us, this is a way that I can take back the control,” she told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live. “It just sucks that it has to be in that way, but I just don’t feel comfortable until things change.”

In a nation that polices women’s reproductive lives and where our social abilities seem to have declined along with our social connections, celibacy can be a thoroughly rational choice for many people, women especially. One problem, though, is that conservative groups and movements are pushing celibacy too – not to give women more control, but to offer us less.

Attacks on the evils of recreational sex are core to the right-wing efforts to stigmatize and even limit access to modern contraception. As Christopher Rufo, one of the architects of the panic over critical race theory, put it on social media, “the point of sex is to create children.” His implication: Sex for fun and pleasure alone is bad, and society should implement mechanisms to discourage or penalize it.

recent op-ed in The New York Times also made a case for celibacy that used largely secular language but contained ideas you might hear in a Catholic church sermon — a less punishing vision than Rufo’s, but still one with a particular set of assumptions about human sexuality. And one has to wonder whether, in an increasingly lonely age, if removing opportunities for sexual connection is really an ideal approach.

This view – that sex is for procreation alone, or that taking sex off the table is the only or best way to forge a genuine connection with another person – often stems from very misogynist roots. And it’s also true that for many individual women and men, taking sex off the table for a period of time may be the right choice. The trick is refusing to fall into sexist ideas about what sex is for or how women should be valued.

And beyond sex, one big job we collectively have in this lonely, atomized moment is connecting with each other more, not less. That doesn’t necessarily mean forging sexual connections, but it does mean forging social ones. It also means considering how to create and sustain institutions that will allow us to meet offline and deepen our real-world relationships instead of defaulting primarily to online options for staying in touch, dating and making friends. A better-connected and better-socialized population, I suspect, would be a much happier one – and likely a more sexually fulfilled one as well.

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